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Missouri History Museum to celebrate the past and present of Black fashion in St. Louis

At left, a dress believed to be made by Elizabeth Keckly for Mary Todd Lincoln in 1861. At right, a 1868 wood engraving of Elizabeth Keckly.
Smithsonian, Missouri Historical Society Collections
At left, a dress believed to have been made by Elizabeth Keckly for Mary Todd Lincoln in 1861. At right, a 1868 wood engraving of Keckly.

Black St. Louisans have been shaping the city's fashion industry for well over a century.

Elizabeth Keckly, who previously had been enslaved, made dresses in the mid-1800s for socialites and first lady Mary Todd Lincoln, and Louise Dunn opened a charm and modeling school for women of color in St. Louis in 1960.

Black St. Louisans' influence on fashion did not end with Keckly or Dunn. A Missouri Historical Society program Thursday will celebrate the living history of Black fashion in St. Louis and the beginning of Black History Month. The event at the Missouri History Museum, which will run from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., includes a panel discussion and trunk show with local designers working to revitalize the city's once booming fashion industry.

The program will feature a conversation with master tailor and designer Raymond Dennis and Merdean Fielding Gales, who was involved with the Ebony Fashion Fair. Local fashion entrepreneurs also will discuss the challenges and rewards of being in the industry and what Black fashion means today.

“The stories of enslavement and the freedom struggles that are part of a long tradition of struggling St. Louis are important, and we want to highlight stories where we talk about Black history through Black culture,” said Shuron Jones, program specialist for the historical society’s African American History Initiative.

Jones said that Black St. Louis’ contributions to modeling, designing and business are noteworthy and that sharing the history could inspire new generations of fashion insiders in the region.

People should not have to leave St. Louis to make a name for themselves in fashion, said AK Brown, a St. Louis fashion expert and panelist.

“I don't feel like you have to go to New York, or in LA, or even Chicago,” Brown said. “I'm very lucky to be able to say that everything from my 9-to-5 to my businesses, or just my personal brand, all have synergy around fashion. And I use my journey to show other people here that you don't have to leave to make that make sense.”

Brown, who also teaches fashion at Stevens-The Institute for Business & Arts, uses her brand to build awareness for Black designers and others in the industry from St. Louis. If there were more stories shared about the history of the St. Louis Black fashion scene, Brown said, they could influence more industry tastemakers today to build upon the city’s legacy.

“I think we contribute a lot to fashion, whether locally or nationally,” she said. “We just need to work on the visibility to really show what we have done in the past and what we're continuing to contribute to our current industry in the future.”

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.